Art review: Philip Kennicott on the Phillips Collection survey of Braque paintings

Clearly visible within the neat borders of a piece of paper is the word “study”, French for study, in a detail of Georges Braque’s boiling 1929 painting, “The round table.” Most likely, given Braque’s interest in music and the bourgeois domesticity he cultivated, the study in question is a piano work by Chopin, or possibly Liszt or Debussy. But a guitar is also clearly visible on the same round table, which looks like a small explosion of puzzles in a bare corner of an interior space. Also present: a knife, which may or may not allude to the intricate network of sharp cracks in the image, including one that runs straight through the guitar, as if the instrument had been torn apart by a tectonic shift.

The “round table” is encountered at the beginning of the exhibition of the Phillips collection “Georges Braque and the Cubist still life, 1928-1945”. Acquired by Duncan Phillips in 1934, the painting anchors the first room of this focused and thought-provoking exhibition, which surveys Braque’s work produced during some of the darkest days of Western civilization. Nearby are somewhat older works, including two bleak horizontal paintings that are also still lifes, but much more still and with much less life. The “Round Table” is something new and different, a still life filled with the usual Braque stuff — fruit, guitar, knife, pipe — but more unruly, colorful, and visually appealing.

The word study cannot be accidental. Like Chopin’s studies, Braque’s works from this period are technical exercises, but paradoxically bursting with invention and life. They are meticulous studies, tests of technique, and yet, despite all their refinement, and despite their often hermetic surface, they burst with strange energies.

The exhibition traces at least three essential tensions in Braque’s work: between pure abstraction and the illusionist representation of the real world; between two-dimensional pictorial space and three-dimensional architectural space; and between his role as an artist entirely devoted to art, and that of a citizen living in a country at war, under occupation and irritated by pure barbarism. None of these tensions are resolved, but there are times when they seem to dissolve, when Braque’s alchemy leaves the impression that several spaces can indeed coexist, that the symbols of things can be as real as the things themselves, and that artists can define decency. both through humility and through heroic resistance.

By 1928 Braque had left behind the thin slivers and gray flecks of the Cubist work he was pursuing alongside Picasso before World War I. His art still lived very much in two dimensions, on the surface of the painting, and he was still a master. to suggest tactile ideas through surface games, imitations of wood grain or faux marble. But things are rounder, objects interpenetrate with a more organic mess, and stark, almost comical shadows give the work a new sense of at least minimal depth. Even though they look flat, like simple outlines of objects, you can’t slip his lemons, pitchers, and fruit knives under the door.

“The Round Table” by Georges Braque, 1929. Oil, sand, charcoal on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC Acquired in 1934.© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris. (Georges Braque)

But he’s determined that they’ll never be mistaken for real things, either. A metal knife suddenly turns transparent, revealing the tablecloth underneath. His fish looks like a childish shorthand for fish, a triangle conjoined with an elongated teardrop, drawn without removing the pencil from the page. Tablecloths and draperies staunchly resist conforming to the things they’re draped over, and wallpaper patterns dance across the wall, imprinting jagged shapes willy-nilly.

But Braque often jeopardizes this world of pure forms by confining it to architectural space. While shadowy objects from his still life studies tangle in a clot in the center of the painting, a window is open in the back, two paneled walls meet in one corner, and the ceiling molding suggests a clear sense of three dimensions. The power of this exhibition, seen for the first time in Saint-Louis Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, is Braque’s cumulative sense of architectural space, the evolving understanding of the rooms in which he placed his ideal still lifes. And as this space becomes clearer, as you begin to believe you are seeing an actual room, with wooden floors, carved panels and curtained windows, the two-dimensional space becomes more vibrant and even eerie. It jumps into a new dimension, a tactile sense of being very particular and real, as if it’s not just a lemon and a pitcher, but a lemon and a pitcher seen from 2 hours on a rainy day in November.

If you can get there, in the sense that if seen from the right angle and in the right frame of mind, all of Braque’s obscurations become transparent and real things emerge, and any nagging doubts about Braque and the politics of his time will probably fade away too. Although some of Braque’s World War II paintings contain skulls that could be seen as symbolic acknowledgment of the gruesome world beyond his studio, there is an overwhelming sense of detachment throughout this exhibit. While millions fought, died or were massacred, the eminent French painter (himself wounded in the First World War) withdrew deep into his private world of art and painted teapots and cheese. Is this acceptable?

There are several well-worn defenses of artistic detachment. One is a categorical denial of any political or moral imperative on the part of artists, who live for art. Another insists on the futility of artistic contestation. Yet another argues that living an exemplary life amidst great injustice and cruelty is all that can be expected of a man. Confronted with the question, the author of a catalog essay for the exhibition is drawn into a delicious illogicality: Braque’s paintings “speak of war precisely by not speaking of war, by creating a kind of universe parallel interior which nevertheless relies on an imagined image and tactile experience of space.

But a French poet who joined the Resistance and later wrote a poetic book celebrating soap offers another understanding. Francois Ponge admired a painting by Braque from 1941, “Mandolin and Sheet Music (The Banjo)», of which he kept a small reproduction close at hand in case of doubt or despair. “That’s why I was able to live,” he said, “That’s the society I fought for.”

Civilization is not simply made up of things, and certainly not in the world of mere products. But Braque’s objects, his pipes, his oysters, his instruments and his music, carry with them a sense of refined pleasure, notes of conversation and contemplation, of domestic tranquility and camaraderie. Villains are also capable of all these pleasures, but they don’t often want to work for them. Braque makes the viewer work to find the rather simple and very French civility beneath his images, which makes the achievement of seeing through his idiosyncrasies all the more rewarding.

Georges Braque and the Cubist still life, 1928-1945

is on view at the Phillips Collection until September 1. For more information, visit phillipscollection.org.

Georges Braque in Varengeville-sur-Mer, France. Taken 1957. Gelatin silver print, 11 5/8 x 9 3/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Derald H. Ruttenberg. (Paul Strand)